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Design genius at play

Gregg Fleishman combines 3-D concepts and a penchant for puzzles in his playhouses, which he views as blueprints for affordable housing.

July 01, 2004|David A. Keeps | Special to The Times

Using no tools other than his hands, architect and furniture designer Gregg Fleishman needs only 29 minutes to transform 101 puzzle-like pieces of Finland birch into one of his Cluster Structures, probably the most sophisticated playhouse ever devised. "You need opposable thumbs to do this," announces Fleishman, "and you have to be at least as intelligent as a chimpanzee."

Make that the kind of chimpanzee that can pound out "Romeo and Juliet" the first time it sits in front of a typewriter. Fleishman is a man who monkeys around with mathematics to create chairs and tables and futuristic buildings that are unimaginable to most of us.

In the sometimes puffed-up world of architecture, where "genius" is an overused word, Fleishman is the real deal. In the last 30 years, he has spent his own money and time re-imagining the process of design and building, following his flights of creativity yet remaining undeservedly under the radar. If his studious manner, spectacles, ever-present baseball cap and fluency in the language of mathematics don't make that immediately clear, his modest lifestyle and low profile certainly do.

For the students of Play Mountain Place, a humanistic alternative school founded by Fleishman's mother in 1949, it doesn't matter whether he is in Western Interiors magazine. He's just a cool, overgrown kid -- Bill Nye the Science Guy meets Bob the Builder -- who makes neat playhouses.

Fleishman was one of the early students in his mother's Culver City school and, since 1972, has used the playground and its inhabitants to test his experimental designs. His latest Cluster Structure may be a fun place for these primary schoolers to hang, but it is also an object lesson in three-dimensional geometry. More important, it is a scale version of the architecture Fleishman one day hopes to popularize.

Although he has yet to apply his design principles to a full-scale building, Fleishman is a rarity in the commercial enterprise of architecture. A theoretician with a social conscience, he creates designs that are a blueprint for prefabricated, low-cost housing, which looks more utopian than utilitarian. "My goal is to create affordable housing worldwide," Fleishman declares.

Fleishman explains his design in the closest approximation of lay language he can muster. The Cluster, he says, is an arrangement of solid wood panels joined at the corners to create open spaces "like a 3-D checkerboard." Each module can be repeated and joined together infinitely, hence the term Cluster, which provides customizing options limited only by one's imagination.

Watching the gang of 6- and 7-year-olds from Play Mountain clamber through the Cluster playhouse, Fleishman also notes that it has an engineering integrity similar to the Egyptian pyramids. "The kids are far more destructive to it than any earthquake could be," says the 56-year-old architect.

"Gregg is a structural genius," says David Wilson, the director of Los Angeles' Museum of Jurassic Technology, who furnished the museum's tearoom with Fleishman's elaborate router-cut furniture. "Everything he designs works aesthetically and with an unusually pure marriage of form and function."

Like Russell Crowe in the 2001 film about a genius mathematician, Gregg Fleishman has a beautiful mind. Rather than build things from pieces, he deconstructs solid forms into parts that can be configured into innovative shapes and spaces. As a furniture designer, he can cut a simple sheet of plywood into an intricate pattern of curves and coils that allows the wood to be folded into a lounge chair with a springy seat. Fleishman's architecture is even more ambitious, and the Cluster is a demonstration model for his larger humanitarian vision.

"Gregg is pursuing a direction that has not quite fully revealed itself just yet," observes Abby Sher, developer of the Edgemar complex in Santa Monica, who in 1992 commissioned Fleishman to design umbrellas that complement the Frank Gehry structure. "He likes coming up with his own puzzles, just so he can solve them."

Fleishman's dilemma has always been figuring out how to take his designs from drawing board to construction site. After studying architecture at USC under building science professor Konrad Wachsman, Fleishman started his career working on concrete office buildings and parking structures, including the whimsical Raleigh Studios lot with a corkscrew parking ramp.

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